San Diego mayoral candidate Eric Bidwell rolls across the cement floor of Cream coffeehouse on his Heelys, wheeled shoes that he found used on craigslist for $20. Impressive dreadlocks extend to his waist. He wears a black shirt that has a graphic of two hands shaking under a table, and below that, in white letters, “San Diego, the finest city money can buy.” A large patch with his logo, a wrench suspended above two gears, covers one of the bulky pockets of his baggy cargo pants. The T-shirt and the patch are both his design.
Bidwell sets his black, musty-scented trench coat next to his laptop computer on one of the few available tables and rolls back to the counter for a cup of coffee. The staff knows him by name, and they talk about an upcoming art show featuring his politically inspired stencil art.
Until recently, Bidwell has used the crammed coffeehouse, located on Park Boulevard in University Heights, as a makeshift office for his struggling T-shirt and button company, as well as a place for perusing the Internet. But for the past few months the café has become campaign headquarters.
According to Bidwell, his decision to run for mayor “is pretty multifaceted. I want to inspire more of the public to participate in the political process and to bring often-overlooked issues and perspectives into the election, giving people an option that is categorically different than the others. And to gain experience organizing people and promoting a cause is a good thing. Also, just the experience of building a political campaign is enough, because I want to eventually run for president.”
Bidwell looked up the requirements to run for mayor using Cream’s free wireless Internet. They seemed simple: the candidate must be at least 18 years old, must be a resident of San Diego and registered to vote in the city, must gather 200 signatures from registered voters, and must submit a $500 filing fee.
The first requirements were easy to meet. Bidwell will turn 26 in May and is a San Diego native, spending most of his childhood sharing small apartments in Hillcrest and Golden Hill with his mother.
“We moved a lot,” he says. “We were poor. I found out that my mom was using [drugs] when I was ten. She would leave me to go out, and I just thought, ‘I’m a ten-year-old kid. I shouldn’t be left alone!’ ”
The rocky relationship Bidwell had with his mom showed in his poor performance at school. He was expelled from Roosevelt Middle School in the seventh grade for bringing a pocketknife onto campus. A year later, after transferring to Pacific Beach Middle School, he and his mother were evicted from their Golden Hill apartment and became homeless. “I was really just stressed and uncomfortable and decided to drop out of eighth grade.”
Despite being homeless for most of his teenage years and spending three weeks in Juvenile Hall on drug-related charges, which were eventually dismissed, Bidwell managed to earn his high school diploma through the California High School Proficiency Exam.
By the time he turned 19, he was living under the I-5 overpass on Washington Street in an RV that he’d purchased from a distant relative. He continued to live in RVs and vans until a few months ago, when he moved in with a new girlfriend.
While the age and residency requirements were easy to satisfy, the remaining two were not.
The first was to gather 200 signatures from registered voters in a month’s time. The people signing had to print their names legibly and provide their addresses. Initially, Bidwell planned to collect signatures all by himself. Luckily for him, he got some help.
Adam Case, a 25-year-old political science graduate from the University of San Diego, noticed Bidwell’s campaign poster propped up against his laptop at Cream and was determined to help from the moment the two began talking. “I saw his poster that said ‘Revolutionary Mayor,’ ” says Case. “I started talking to him, you know, and the term ‘revolutionary’ is kind of overplayed. He’s got dreadlocks and stuff, but the idea of actually applying it to a political purpose, well, that’s revolutionary, especially seeing how he grew up and his perspective on things!”
The two mulled over places where they would attract registered voters willing to sign Bidwell’s petition.
They collected signatures at the Ocean Beach farmers’ market and on the campus of SDSU. They collected more at the Tribute to the Reggae Legends Festival, formerly the Bob Marley Festival, held at the San Diego Sports Arena on February 18.
Bidwell recalls the decision to go there. “I thought about it and was, like, ‘Hey, that’s probably a pretty good demographic.’ I mean, most of them probably signed because I have dreadlocks.”
After scratching out a hundred or so names that were illegible or missing addresses, Bidwell had nearly 300 signatures, well above the 200 needed.
He was left with the last remaining challenge, to raise $500 for the filing fee. “I had to spend a good deal of time getting that money. Five hundred dollars is usually what I live off of every month. So I had to do double of what I usually do to get it.”
While not wanting to be specific on all the ways he earned money, he says most came from working odd jobs on craigslist. “I picked up some labor gigs. I did a survey for TestAmerica at the Mission Valley mall and got 25 bucks for doing a taste test on orange juice. I also did a taste-test survey for Jack in the Box. A little of this and a little of that.”
Regardless of how unorthodox his methods, on March 6, Bidwell submitted the money and signatures to the City Clerk’s Office. On March 19, he received confirmation that his name would appear on the ballot.
Brian Adams, assistant professor of political science at SDSU, likes the fact that anyone with the will to run for mayor can do so. “Personally, I believe there should be as few restrictions as possible: let the voters decide who is competent to be mayor.”